Magazine article Ecos

Cattle and Conservation Can Be a Costly Mix: What Is the True Cost of On-Farm Conservation, and Who Will Pay?

Magazine article Ecos

Cattle and Conservation Can Be a Costly Mix: What Is the True Cost of On-Farm Conservation, and Who Will Pay?

Article excerpt

Native biodiversity conservation and beef production may seem unlikely allies. But until recently, few studies on whether the two could coexist had been conducted. In a project just completed, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems economist, Neil MacLeod, and his colleagues in the Grazed Landscapes Management Team, considered the costs and barriers involved in implementing conservation strategies with livestock production on Queensland's grassy eucalypt grazing lands.

`We looked at the on-farm impacts of adopting best practice conservation management in Queensland to optimise biodiversity on rural landscapes,' MacLeod says.

`The grassy eucalypt woodlands are under-represented in formal conservation reserves because they're among the richest grazing lands in the country, and they're some of the oldest settled. But they're also ecologically diverse, and maintaining that biodiversity is a high priority.'

The first questions typically asked of any strategy to conserve resources are: how will changing management practices affect production, and what are the economic implications of such change?

MacLeod's study sought real-world answers to these questions.

Down on the farm

Four beef cattle properties were selected for the study, at Crows Nest, west of Brisbane, and further north at Mundubbera. Two properties were small, intensive farms of about 900 hectares, and two were larger farms of 1700 ha and 10 000 ha.

The properties were chosen to represent the diversity of enterprises in the region, in terms of their vegetation structure and commercial activity. All four contained `variegated landscapes', that is, 60-90% of the original native vegetation remained. This definition is important as it influences landscape management.

`Treating them as "fragmented" landscapes and seeking to only protect a few of their component species is likely to eventually lead to their degradation,' MacLeod explains.

MacLeod and his colleagues assessed the ecological health of each property under their present management systems, through vegetation and ground surveys, air photo interpretation and landowner consultations. Using geographic information systems, the ecological information was turned into spatial maps showing the distribution of different land uses and ecological elements.

Principles and thresholds

The maps were then compared to a set of ecological principles for the sustainable management of grazed woodlands. These principles promote improved ecological function through the management of pastures, soils, trees, watercourses, wildlife and habitat.

`The principles were developed through a partnership between our project team and 11 scientific specialists with expertise in different aspects of landscape management, such as soils, hydrology, wildlife, tree grazing ecology, and farm forestry,' MacLeod says.

Some of the management principles contain threshold values for minimum levels of native vegetation. For example, `there should be a minimum of 30% woodland or forest cover on properties'; `woodland patches should be a minimum of 5-10 ha'; and, `at least 10% of the property managed for wildlife values'.

`Thresholds are naturally contentious, but we've included them to show that as tree or grass cover gets below a certain threshold, some key ecological processes change for the worse,' MacLeod says.

`Woodland bird populations decline or tree dieback increases, for example.'

The health assessment revealed that the soils and pastures on each property were in good condition. The most significant issue for the four properties, however, was the state of their treescapes and the health of riparian vegetation.

While many paddocks had significant tree populations with a reasonable diversity of species, there were also many paddocks with non-viable tree populations. In all cases, MacLeod says the riparian zones had been extensively cleared (which is common practice), and continued access by livestock had significantly modified the bankside timber and soil structure. …

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